So this, my third “real” Legion story, was a reprint from Adventure Comics #343, cover-dated April, 1966. It’s written by the great Edmond Hamilton, then a science fiction author in the 40th year of his career. Hamilton was no stranger to stories about teams of do-gooders fighting evil in futuristic environments. His credits included the Captain Future series of pulp juveniles and space opera series Interstellar Patrol, The Star Kings and Starwolf. At DC Comics, where he began working in 1942, he also co-created Space Ranger and Batwoman.
For me, this story was both a glimpse into the Legion’s already well-documented past, and a revelation of more new Legionnaires. While I was familiar with the idea of Golden Age incarnations of characters vs. current (Bronze Age was “current” for me) ones, I think this was probably the first encounter I’d had with how characters were re-designed when the Silver Age morphed into the Bronze. I saw Shrinking Violet’s sleek bodysuit traded in for a mini-dress, and Saturn Girl’s very revealing swimsuit-style costume for a sensible tunic and tights. Much as I loved the Dave Cockrum re-designs of the costumes, and Mike Grell’s rendering of them, and much as I loved this costume as a boy, it really didn’t fit Imra’s personality. I can see why it was one of the first “new” costumes traded in a few years later.
Similarly, Chameleon Boy, Lightning Lad, Star Boy and Lightning Lass sported different looks, some of them with notably different color schemes. Element Lad’s hot pink was a particular departure from his later navy and green. The black “E” stenciled on his chest always reminded me of a cheap, bootleg action figure.
I met Invisible Kid, Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel in this issue. It was a long time before I realized the Kid was missing from current stories, and even longer before I found out he’d died four issues before I began reading. Matter-Eater Lad is in the story, but not named, and only in one panel. And Cosmic Boy remained for me, for now, “that guy in pink,” since he’s never named in this issue, other than a reference that Night Girl dates him.
This story also includes the Legion of Super-Pets, further expanding the scope of the Legion universe for me. I had only seen Krypto before, on TV and in a single story in the Superman Collector’s Edition.
I was particularly struck by the characterization of Saturn Girl in this issue. As the team leader at the time, she was coldly intellectual—almost Spock-like—and very much in charge. She’s saved from straying into cast-iron bitch territory by her obvious affection for Lightning Lad. It was a forward-thinking characterization for a female hero, especially for 1966. In this story, she’s very much the voice of reason, ridiculing her fellow Legionnaires, with their scientific training, who would stoop to believing in superstitions.
But believe they do. Convinced they’re under a “jinx,” the young heroes, except for Superboy, panic; but they still manage to push forward with their jobs. When Saturn Girl goes off on her own to investigate the Luck Lords who might provide a clue to why the Legion seems to be jinxed, they follow despite their fears, bringing along the Super Pets, who don’t seem to be suffering from excess bad luck. I was struck by the panel showing Saturn Girl in the Legion’s “research room,” where she was examining globes showing the landscapes of multiple alien planets. I wanted a room like that in my house!
As he develops the story, Hamilton does an amazing job inventing superstitions that people in the space age—and non-human aliens—might believe: windows let in evil spirits, getting hit by lightning is lucky if you’re made out of metal, flying through the mouth of a gorilla-shaped nebula is unlucky, as is setting foot on a new planet with your left foot. Alongside a recount of these, artist Curt Swan displays a high level of creativity showing denizens of different planets.
I’ll fault Hamilton and Swan on one thing only in this story—at one point, the Legionnaires believe that Saturn Girl has died. Aside from Hamilton adding a pause in Lightning Lad’s realization of her death (“She… couldn’t have survived”) and a soulful “Imra… My darling… Goodbye” in a thought balloon, there’s no emotional impact shown at all. A few panels later, Lightning Lad is walking jauntily arm-in-arm with Duo Damsel. Of course, Imra’s not dead, but make it real, huh guys?
I think the most striking thing about this story from the middle of the Legion’s classic, 81-issue run in Adventure, is how broken a lot of the Legionnaires are. Lightning Lad has a metal arm, because an alien creature ate the real one. Duo Damsel used to be Triplicate Girl, but one of her bodies was killed in action. Star Boy was expelled for killing a man in self-defense. Bouncing Boy had lost his powers. (Lightning Lad had also been dead, but I didn’t know it at the time.) And, of course, my first exposure to the Legion was seeing a house ad for the issue that contained the death of Ferro Lad, the cover of which boldly proclaimed, “One of the Legionnaires on this cover will DIE!” It was bold in 1967. Now it’s just the only way some creators know to generate interest in their piss-poor product.
The fact that these characters suffer permanent setbacks is unique for DC Comics in 1966, as is the fact that you really had to know a lot of Legion history to keep up, hard as the editors and writers worked to make every issue a jumping-on point. That made Legion the only property DC had which could really be compared to the serial style that Marvel Comics was building a universe on. I think it’s one of the reasons that the Legion has such a loyal—and distinct—fan base.
That’s a lot of discussion for a 16-page story, isn’t it. But, you know, these were the days when creators packed an awful lot into 16 pages. It’s hard not to miss them.